Why your pot noodle might not just be bad for you, but for Indonesian child labourers too

It’s a sad state of affairs when companies, confronted with allegations of slavery in their supply chains, admit to it with little sense of shame. They express concern, tell us it’s unacceptable and that they’re doing everything they can to source sustainably. But essentially, they want us to believe that this is a structural issue of the global economy that they can’t do much about.

It’s certainly true that slavery has become “structural” because of the extent to which people are on the move, not just across Asia, Africa and Latin America but also across Europe. Migrants desperate to find employment are vulnerable to exploitation by the traffickers, gangmasters and recruitment agencies that are at the front end of this lucrative trade.

But responsibility doesn’t end there. While not all those labouring in conditions of modern slavery are in the supply chains of multinational corporations – many are in domestic service – a large proportion are producing the branded goods that are sold in shopping centres and high streets across the world.

Today we published an investigation on the inhumane working conditions on palm oil plantations in Indonesia. There is evidence of child labourers between the ages of eight and 14, who have dropped out of school, being exposed to hazardous chemicals and required to carry heavy loads. Workers are often obliged to toil for excessive hours under duress, with the threat of having their pay withheld if they refuse or if they fail to meet exacting targets. This amounts to forced labour. Highly toxic herbicides are used which are damaging to health, with inadequate protection for the workers handling them.

As shocking as these revelations are, what is equally appalling are the lame excuses from the companies most likely to have these plantations in their supply chains. These include major corporations such as Unilever, Kellogg’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Nestlé and Reckitt Benckiser, who produce beloved household favourites like Magnum ice-cream, Colgate toothpaste, Dove cosmetics, Knorr soup, KitKat, Pantene shampoo, Aero chocolate bars, Ariel, and the British students staple, Pot Noodle.

Not one of the nine companies we confronted with our allegations has denied that such abuses are taking place or indicated that it’s avoidable. Instead they point to a plethora of initiatives and policies which either aren’t implemented properly or are ineffective, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. They emphasise the complicated and systemic nature of the problems -  as if they are not accustomed to dealing with complex problems. They tell us how difficult it is to trace palm oil to individual plantations, which essentially means they are unable to hold their suppliers to account either. Given that most of these companies source from the world’s largest trader of palm oil, Wilmar, which has extensive operations in Indonesia including ownership of plantations, such an accountability gap is hard to justify -  and verges on implausible.

The idea that slavery is somehow just “unavoidable” has been taking root over the last decade in response to the almost daily revelations that yet another major brand has been caught out. While it’s States that are primarily responsible under international law for protecting people within their jurisdiction from all forms of slavery, businesses have moral responsibility in so far as they benefit from such forms of exploitation and are in a position to do something about it. Beyond the moral dimension, businesses are also subject to national laws and international standards that address slavery. However, these fall far short of holding them accountable.

What is needed is a system of criminal liability to ensure that large corporations found to have slavery or abusive forms of child labour in their supply chains are automatically considered to be committing an offence, regardless of the steps they have taken to prevent it. Causing or contributing to slavery should be considered a crime under all circumstances. The creeping tolerance of such inhumanity is an affront to a civilised society. We should all resist the temptation to normalise this by giving credence to companies’ attempts to excuse the inexcusable.

The fact that these huge household brands want us to believe it’s some sort of hazard of the trade - regrettable but unavoidable - not only leaves a bad taste, but is positively poisonous. You can bet your bottom dollar that if we were talking about some other sort of tainting of a product, it would be off the shelves in a heartbeat and there would be no problem in tracing the source to specific plantations. The brutal truth is that human rights abuse in the supply chain is not viewed as a quality control issue, but it should be. Products containing human rights abuses should be treated as defective.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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